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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                      95

Alexei groaned. They dropped into a walking pace.
In the distance the automatic anti-aircraft guns were
already chattering convulsively. One after another flights
of aircraft crept out on to the runway and hopped off.
Above the familiar sound of their engines Alexei soon
heard coming from the woods an irregular, undulating
drone which caused his muscles to contract automatically
like tightened springs; and this man, bound to the
stretcher, imagined that he was in the cockpit of a fighter
speeding to meet the enemy.

The stretcher would not go into the narrow slit. Yura
and the girls wanted to carry him down in their arms, but
Alexei protested, demanding that the stretcher be put
down on the edge of the wood under a big, stout birch-
tree. Lying there he witnessed the events that took place
with a swiftness that occurs in a heavy dream. Airmen
have rare opportunities to watch an air battle from the
ground. Meresyev, who had fought in the Air Force since
the first day of the war, had never witnessed an air battle
from the ground. And now, accustomed as he had been
to lightning speeds in air fighting, he was amazed how
slow and harmless an air battle seemed from the ground,
how listless the movements of the old, blunt-nosed fighter
planes and how harmless the rattle of their machine-guns
sounded above, reminding him of something domestic—
like the whir of a sewing-machine, or the ripping of calico
when it is torn.

Twelve German bombers, in V formation, bypassed the
airfield and vanished in the bright rays of the sun, now
high in the sky. From behind the clouds, the edges of
which were so dazzling from the sun that it hurt the eyes
to look at them, came the low droning of the engines like
the buzzing of cockchafers. The anti-aircraft guns in the
woods barked and snarled more furiously than ever. The
smoke from their bursting shells floated in the sky like
fluffy dandelion seeds. But nothing was seen except a rare
flash of the wings of a fighter plane.

More and more often the buzzing of the cockchafers
was interrupted by the sound of tearing calico: r-r-r-ip,
r-r-r-ip, r-r-r-ip! Amidst the dazzling sun-rays a battle